Though not a hallmark of the American holiday season, in Europe, “14 Angels” from Humperdinck’s opera Hansel and Gretel is something of a staple for the Christmas season, especially in Europe. Another instance of Aretha taking her own thing and running with it, Aretha included her own cover of the song, which she remembered hearing growing up, on 2008’s This Christmas Aretha.
Naturally, it’s a significant departure from the orchestral arrangements that dominate the field of “14 Angels”. Aretha became synonymous with opera after her last-minute stand-in for Pavarotti at the 1998 Grammy Awards, and “Nessun Dorma” became a hallmark of her setlist afterwards. She also occasionally mixed in other opera into her setlist, but this marked her first (and only released) recorded foray into the genre.
Aretha also put her magical arranging skills to work on “14 Angels”, in addition to utilizing her underrated piano playing. How it opens though, is something else. Aretha begins the adaptation by playing a portion of “Chopsticks”, perhaps the last thing one expects to hear in the moment. But that strangeness is only momentary. It gives way to Aretha performing a beautiful self-accompanied adaptation, that touches on gospel, and contains more than a little bit of soul. Vocally, she chooses to show out, as the arrangement fills out with flourishes of bells, bass, and percussion.
As always, Aretha shines while accompanying herself at the piano. There’s an element of her gospel roots that comes through in her accompaniment. Though it isn’t like any “14 Angels” you’ve heard before, it’s one that you need to hear.
Listen to Aretha’s take on “14 Angels”